Pity poor Melvin Ferd.
Melvin is a janitor at the local health club in Tromaville, New Jersey; he’s unattractive, uncoordinated, and unpopular. Not only that, but the health club’s patrons seem to all regard Melvin as their private stress-relief toy, so whenever anyone has too much cocaine (or steroids, or a steroid-cocaine cocktail that was popular between 1982 and 1987), Melvin ends up on the wrong end of their torment and bullying.
One day, a prank on Melvin goes wrong and he falls into a barrel of toxic waste. Instead of killing him, the waste turns Melvin into a muscle-bound mutant with a penchant for fighting crime and protecting the innocent. Which actually works out well for him, because Tromaville is a veritable cesspool of killers, thugs, psychopaths, and mean people, and a superhero is exactly what the town needs to make things bearable for the small minority of decent human beings who live there. As the town’s “Mutant Hero,” the Toxic Avenger (or “Toxie,” as he would come to be known in the sequels) cuts a swath of devastation through Troma’s ample criminal underworld, simultaneously cleaning up the town and exacting his vengeance on the health-conscious drug addicts who turned him into a mutant in the first place.
It’s a simple story, but one with enough resonance behind it to spawn three sequels, a comic book, a children’s cartoon show, and an off-Broadway musical. Really. A fourth sequel and a remake are both rumored to be in the works as well. Perhaps more impressively, The Toxic Avenger was the most successful film for production and distribution company Troma Entertainment, enabling the company to produce a number of low-budget cult classics like ‘Class of Nuke ‘Em High’ and ‘Tromeo and Juliet,’ among many others. The style and film-making techniques used in ‘The Toxic Avenger’ would eventually be recycled into so many other B-movies that similarly-styled films would become known as “Troma films.”
Before we go further, it’s worth noting that, despite what you might expect from a story about a janitor turned into a superhero by a barrel of toxic waste, there’s no environmental message here. Rather than a polluting corporate conglomerate or a rainforest clear-cutting concern, the villains in this story are a generically corrupt mayor and, entirely unrelated, a gang of young adults who drive over people for fun. You won’t be surprised if I tell you there’s no strong moral here – the closest thing might be “if you have impossibly sociopathic hobbies, don’t come crying to us if a mutant kills you by burning you to death in a sauna.” If that applies to your life in any way, feel free to write down a brief explanation and then never show it to anyone; there’s a good chance you’re already wanted by the police.
Considering the size and scope of the franchise it spawned, ‘The Toxic Avenger’ is surprisingly dark. As an example, an early scene where a preteen gets run over by a car is mostly silly, but also plenty disturbing for most parents. That dichotomy runs throughout the movie: people are attacked and killed in ways that are comically over-the-top and gruesomely violent all at once, and yet, somehow, for some reason, they made a kids’ TV show out of this. There hasn’t been this much dissonance between source material and children’s programming since Dora the Explorer ran 200 kilos of uncut Colombian yayo across the border for the Latin Kings (EDITOR’S NOTE: This never happened. Please don’t sue us). Overall, there’s a kind of interplay where the violence feeds the comedy and vice versa, and it’s mostly good fun as long as you don’t take any of it at all seriously.
You want realism in your ’80s sci-fi B-movies? There is none. No realism here. This movie is a reality-free zone. The characters only barely qualify as one-dimensional, the villains are so over-the-top they’re in low earth orbit, and also I’m pretty sure that falling into a barrel of toxic waste won’t give you superpowers. Chemical burns and cancer, probably; superpowers, no. I’ll pause for a few minutes so you can finish writing that down. On a scale of 1 to 10, I’m be tempted to score this film an absolute zero in the “Realism” department for the sheer lunacy at work, but because it’s worth suspending absolutely all your disbelief, I’ll give it one gentlemen’s point.
It’s something of an accomplishment that the whole “getting-superpowers-from-a-barrel-of-toxic-waste” thing actually isn’t the most ridiculous thing that happens in the movie. It might not even crack the top five, depending on how unbelievable your life is. Still, the whole point of the story of the film is be to be ridiculous and silly and funny, so it’s hard to complain about things being ludicrous when ludicrosity (not a real word) is the entire point. I can nitpick and point out that the plot drags a bit at times during some of the unnecessarily long expository scenes, but overall the bizarre lurching of the story just adds to the fun.
As is the standard for low-budget horror movies of the era, the special effects are mostly achieved through make-up and dummies, with plenty of dry ice to fill in any and all gaps. The violence is meant to be seen, so instead of discretionary camera angles and reaction shots, you’ll get plenty of straightforward gore and bloody dismembering. On their own, the effects are cheesy and simplistic, but the rest of the movie is also cheesy and simplistic, so at least the effects don’t stand out in any noticeable way.
Despite the poor reviews you might hear from the “average” critic, ‘The Toxic Avenger’ is worthwhile for any sci-fi/horror fan who wants to see humanity’s caveman instincts get a violent upbraiding. It won’t be everyone’s cup of toxic sludge, but it’s perfectly fine popcorn fare for a night when you’re just plain done thinking.
Tony Schaab wonders who would win in an epic, Gladiator-style fight between the Grumpy Cat and the “This is Fine” Dog – an animal-heavy meme battle for the ages! A lover of most things sci-fi and horror, Tony is an author by day and a DJ by night. Come hang out with Tony on Twitter to hear him spew semi-funny nonsense and get your opportunity to finally put him in his place.